What's Missing From Interior's New Scientific Integrity Policy?

| Tue Aug. 31, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

The Department of Interior issued a new draft policy on scientific integrity on Tuesday, a long overdue addition to the agency's manual outlining the rules and regulations for employees when it comes to ensuring that their decisions are based on sound science. It's certainly a step in the right direction, given such a policy didn't even exist previously. But there are still concerns that the policy doesn't go far enough in reforming an agency known for ignoring (or outright manipulating) scientific findings.

In the wake of the BP disaster, Interior has come under increased scrutiny when it comes to its enforcement and oversight activities. The Minerals Management Service, now renamed the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, has been singled out for the bulk of the criticism. As the agency's Inspector General pointed out in April, in its not-so-subtly-titled report "Interior Lacks a Scientific Integrity Policy," DOI's other divisions have also fallen down on the job when it comes to upholding sound scientific practices. At fault, the IG says, has been the lack of a policy on the subject. From the report:

We found that Interior has no comprehensive scientific integrity policy and only one of its bureaus has such a policy. In addition, we found that Interior has no requirement to track scientific misconduct allegations. Without policies to ensure the integrity of its scientific research, Interior runs the risk that flawed information will reach the scientific community and general public, thereby breaching the public's trust and damaging Interior's reputation. The time for a comprehensive scientific integrity policy at Interior is, therefore, long overdue.

The report offered a few examples illustrating why the lack of a policy is problematic. In one case, a deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks "was found to have unduly influenced a critical habitat designation." In another, a National Park Serve senior science adviser for Point Reyes National Seashore "misrepresented research regarding sedimentation, failed to provide information sought after from Freedom of Information Act request, and misinformed individuals in a public forum regarding sea life data, and put into question NPS' scientific integrity."

The IG's office recommended that the agency develop and implement an Interior-wide, comprehensive scientific integrity policy, one that covers "all agents, appointees, employees and contractors involved in researching and publishing scientific results of any kind." Now, the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility says the draft policy DOI produced only includes about half the rules that are needed. While agency scientists would be disciplined for things like falsifying data and not disclosing or avoiding conflicts of interest, there are a number of concerns. Chief among them is that the draft policy only applies to employees, contractors, and volunteers, excluding supervisors and appointees. Which is pretty key—most of the officials responsible for suppressing or altering scientific data have been political appointees.

"The scientists within Interior are not the ones rewriting documents inappropriately. Scientific misconduct stems from Interior's political appointees and hand-picked senior managers but these folks are not covered by the policy," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Interior's approach to scientific integrity in essence penalizes the victims and gives a free ride to the perpetrators… Reform at Interior needs to start at the top."

The policy will be open for public comment for the next 20 days. It's also worth noting that President Obama issued a directive in March 2009 calling for a new scientific integrity policy covering all the federal agencies, an attempt to reform the tattered reputation agencies earned under the Bush administration for burying or manipulating incovenient science. Each agency was also supposed to write its own policies, and today's DOI draft is in response to that directive. And while the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was supposed to deliver the overarching policy for all agencies by July 2009, it still has yet to be completed.

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